Monday, October 10, 2011

Martinez the least of Nebraska's problems

Welcome to another Monday of addressing knee jerk reactions. If you listen to some Nebraska football fans, message board posters and in some cases mainstream media members, you would think quarterback Taylor Martinez was the primary (and only) reason for the Nebraska football team's problems.

The term problem, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt since many college football teams would gladly take the Huskers problems of being 5-1 and ranked No. 13 in the latest Associated Press poll after Saturday's stunning 34-27 come-from-behind win over Ohio State. Nebraska being 5-1 is not necessarily a problem, only the process most people figured is not what most (including myself) anticipated. In head coach Bo Pelini's four seasons, the Huskers made a transformation from being the worst defense known to man under former defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove in 2007 when they were 114th in the nation in total defense to No. 4 in 2009. The defense was not as strong last season but definitely strong enough in 2009 and 2010 to where if Nebraska had an even mediocre offense, it would have bee good enough to win a Big 12 title.

Fast forward to 2011, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson leaves and Husker fans celebrated pretty much en masse as running backs coach Tim Beck was promoted to offensive coordinator. Watson's departure alone made Nebraska fans dance in the streets. Most people figured the offense would take time to find its way in 2011 while the defense did a lot of heavy lifting. Sure, losses like cornerback Prince Amukamara, safeties Eric Hagg and Dejon Gomes would be felt. However, the Huskers boasted a high end returning player at every level of the defense -- tackle Jared Crick, linebacker LaVonte David and cornerback Alfonso Dennard.

So far, only David has lived up to his preseason hype. To be fair, Dennard is still working his way back into form after missing the first four games to a quad injury. Crick and defensve end Cameron Meredith, however, have been big disappointments. If not for David's mid third quarter forced and recovered fumble of Buckeye quarterback Braxton Miller, the Huskers don't even begin to make their second half charge.

So how does all of this pertain to Martinez? Let's talk about that for just a minute. Does Martinez have his issues? Yes. Is Martinez free of fault? No. However, when you look at the Huskers entire body of work over the course of six games, the team's problems are less about him and much more about the defense. In fact, it's not even close.
Forget the Ohio State game for just a nano-second. Let's just assume Nebraska has a defense that most of us come to expect under Pelini. Keep in mind, Nebraska entered Saturday's game ranked No. 73 in total defense. For the sake of discussiom, let's say they are ranked in the top 40 in a worst case scenario. None of the games are even close except for Wisconsin, which was a 48-17 loss.

Even in that game, Nebraska trailed 20-14 late in the first half. The offense actually looked OK at that point before. The offensive line was blocking, running back Rex Burkhead was running well and Martinez was throwing at least decent. If the defense had been playing well, perhaps Beck and Martinez (who let's face it is an average at best passer) wouldn't have been in a position where they felt they constantly needed to score. Though it's easy to hammer Martinez for forcing passes into double coverage, perhaps he would not have been compelled to do so if it did not appear that Wisconsin was going to score on every damn possession.
On Saturday, Nebraska's Blackshirts (if you want to call them that) gave up 246 yards of offense in the first half. If the defense came to play, Nebraska wins this game going away. Keep in mind, Ohio State had a 12-3 minute top of possession edge in he first quarter. So Martinez is not Joe Montana. This may shock the "Bench Martinez's ass" camp but he came up big in the second half along with running back Rex Burkhead.

Martinez completed 16 of 22 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns and one interception. He also added a rushing touchdown, 95 yards on 16 carries. All of that while guiding Nebraska to its biggest come-from-behind win in school history. OK, Martinez, I know it kills you but give the kid some credit.

The bottom line is quarterbacks will have games where they throw interceptions. In case you have never watched a game in your life, great ones throw the. Average ones throw them. Bad ones throw them. The point is Nebraska's defense is supposed to be good enough to where the offense can make a couple mistakes a game so that they can overome them. At this point, that is not close to being the case.

Speaking of the defense, we'll examine that more during the bye week as the Huskers next play at Minnesota on Oct. 22. However, to take a preliminary look, I ask, at what point does Nebraska play the Peso (4-2-5)? It worked like a charm the last few years. I realize conventional widom says you need a three linebacker defense against the Big 10, but right now conventional wisdom sucks. Are the Huskers served better by putting more speed on the field. Does it pay off to have the linebackers in the game when they are non-productive anyway?
Back to Martinez, here's a late breaking story for football fans. Quarterbacks are going to have incompletions, bad reads, and intereptions at every level. It's part of the game. Has Martinez played as well as he can? No. He definitely needs to improve but it stans to reason that the difference between a top ten Nebraska team and the team we see today is not and has not been Martinez. It has been the defense.
Though I have been a Husker fan for 24 years and a graduate for 14, I simply do not get a certain segment of our fans. I get it that Martinez's throwing motion and decision making can be frustrating but we all need to realize that if we want to put in a quarterback that doesn't throw interceptions, you'll never find one. Gee whizz. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers must al really suck.

So while you are busy being convinced that Martinez is the problem, I say this: Keep a healthy Martinez and fix the damn defense and everything else will fall into place.

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